Didn’t Paul quote from the Old Testament by chapter number?

Q. In the book of Acts, when Paul was speaking to the people of Pisidian Antioch, he introduced one of his Scripture quotations by saying, “As it is written in the second Psalm . . .”  Isn’t this evidence within the canonical Scriptures of referencing by chapter number, and can’t we take it as support for doing that today?

Paul, of course, could not have been using the system of chapter numbering that we know today, since it was only added many centuries after he lived, in AD 1200.  Rather, he was simply referring to one of the psalms by describing where it came in the traditional ordering.  In addition, the numbers of the psalms, unlike the chapter numbers in most other places in the Bible, serve to identify distinct compositions rather than to break them up.  So this is not exactly a case of quoting by chapter number as is done today.

Still, this is an important question, because here Paul is not citing Scripture by context and content, the way he does in Romans when he speaks of “the passage about Elijah–how he appealed to God against Israel” (referring to the contest on Mount Carmel), or the way Jesus does when he refers to “the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush.” Paul doesn’t even identify the psalm by its first line, as was customarily done.  This seems to be definite biblical evidence for an apostle referencing by number, rather than by context and content.  So what’s going on here?

Actually, when understood in light of the broader manuscript tradition of the book of Acts, this citation by Paul provides canonical support not for referencing by chapter number, but for recognizing chapter numbers as a late and fluid addition to the text of Scripture.

While most ancient codices of Acts read “as it is written in the second psalm,” Codex Bezae, representing the Western textual tradition, reads, “as it is written in first psalm.” This reading has significant patristic support.  P45, an important third-century papyrus, reads simply, “as it is written in the psalms.”  The editorial committee for the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament was so uncertain about the original reading here that they ranked the reading that appears in the text, “the second psalm,” a {D}, expressing their greatest degree of uncertainty.

Bruce Metzger writes in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament that “the variety of positions at which the numeral (whether prōtō or deuterō) is introduced makes both numerals suspect.”  This would suggest that P45 has the correct reading, “as it is written in the psalms.”

But Metzger then notes that if this is the original reading, “One has the difficulty of explaining why, in this passage alone in the New Testament, almost all scribes thought it necessary to introduce the quotation by using a numeral.”  Hence the uncertainty about the original reading in Acts.  We don’t know whether the numeral is original, we don’t know which numeral is correct (“first” or “second”) if it was original, and we don’t know why a numeral was introduced if it wasn’t original.

But we can at least explain the uncertainty about which psalm the quotation comes from.  There’s a well-attested tradition in which the second psalm as we know it today is treated as part of the first psalm.  That’s why some of the manuscripts that do have a numeral say “first” rather than “second.”

This tradition of combining the two psalms doesn’t stand up very well to a literary analysis, which clearly identifies Psalm 1 as a wisdom psalm and Psalm 2 as a coronation psalm.  (See my study guide to the Psalms for an explanation of these types and many others.)  But this tradition, as reflected in the textual variation in this passage in Acts, does illustrate that chapter numbers are a late and fluid addition to the canonical text of Scripture.  All the more reason not to rely on them today, whatever Paul might actually have said to the people when he was in Pisidian Antioch.

Ruins of the Church of St. Paul in Pisidian Antioch, built on the traditional location of the synagogue where he is believed to have spoken on his visit to the city.

Studying the Bible without chapters and verses

A commenter on this post wrote that The Books of the Bible was “great for just reading,” but that a “regular Bible” was “almost necessary to study.”

In response, I insisted that The Books of the Bible, which takes out the chapter and verse numbers and presents the biblical books in their natural literary forms, actually makes a great “study Bible” as well.  That’s how this series of study guides could be created to be used with it (although the guides can be used with any version of the Bible, as this post explains.)

I also promised to share a real-life experience that illustrated what “studying the Bible without chapters and verses” looks like, as related in my book After Chapters and Verses.  Here’s the story.

I was recently part of a Bible study group that was going through the book of Daniel.  When we took up the third episode in the book, the participants were fascinated to hear how Nebuchadnezzar had made a statue ninety feet high out of gold.  Some of them glanced down at the notes in their Bibles and read them out loud to try to help the group understand why he’d done this.

One note suggested that using gold for a huge statue was an ostentatious display of the wealth, power and prosperity of the empire.  A note in another Bible observed that a huge gold statue would have been overwhelmingly bright and dazzling.  But I asked the members of the study to consider whether anything we’d encountered earlier in the book of Daniel would explain why Nebuchadnezzar had made this statue out of gold.

They thought back to the previous episode, which we’d discussed the previous week.  They remembered that the king had had a dream about a statue.  Its head was made of gold, but its chest and arms were silver, its torso and thighs were bronze, its legs were iron and its feet were made of iron and clay.  Daniel’s interpretation of the dream was that Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, symbolized by the gold head, would be displaced by an inferior empire, which would then be replaced by another, and then another, in the years to come.

In light of this dream and its interpretation, our group recognized that Nebuchadnezzar had created a statue entirely out of gold to offer a direct and very public rejection of the message he’d received from God.  He was saying, using the very symbolism of the dream God had sent him, that his own empire would actually last forever and never be displaced.  And by insisting that all the officials in his kingdom bow down to this statue, he was requiring them to join him in contradicting God’s revealed vision of the future, and to give their allegiance to him and his empire instead.  No wonder Daniel’s friends felt they had to disobey!

Our group wouldn’t have found such satisfying answers to its questions, and we’d have missed an essential dynamic within the book, if we’d simply “read the study notes” and moved on.  We got a much greater insight into the passage when we understood how it functioned within the book of Daniel.

But we haven’t been trained to study the Bible this way.  We haven’t been taught that we need to read first in order to be able to study afterwards.  In fact, we haven’t been encouraged to “read” at all, not in a continuous way.  We’ve more often been  asked to consider isolated parts of larger works (“chapters” or “verses”) without being shown how they fit within a whole book and how we can appreciate the meaning they have there.  We’ve been encouraged to try to understand them instead by looking at other isolated biblical passages in series of cross-references, or by consulting the notes in our Bibles, study guides and commentaries, or asking our pastors, teachers and group leaders.

In other words, our definition of “studying the Bible” has been moving back and forth between the text and explanatory resources.  This approach to Bible “study” isn’t effective.  The units it engages typically aren’t the structurally and thematically meaningful ones within a book.  Even when they are, we don’t appreciate the meaning they receive from their place within the book as a whole.  This kind of studying can easily devolve into a running commentary on interesting or puzzling features of an ill-defined stretch of text.  It depends on people having an implicit trust in the knowledge and trustworthiness of group leaders and the authors of notes and guides.

We really need to adopt a new definition of what it means to “study the Bible”:  considering the natural parts of a biblical book to recognize how they work within the book as a whole.  This means that studying has to be the second step in a process whose first step is reading.

It also means that the best “study Bible” is one like The Books of the Bible that first makes a great “reading Bible.”

Is the Bible what it has become?

In this series I’ve used the following examples to explore generally whether the accumulated marks of an artistic creation’s subsequent history as a cultural artifact become part of its essential substance and meaning.  I’ve done this as a means of asking specifically whether chapters and verses and other historical accretions should now be considered an integral part of the Bible:
– The cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling;
– The famous crack in the Liberty Bell; and
– The isolation of the figure from Whistler’s painting Arrangement in Grey and Black as “Whistler’s Mother.”

What can each of these examples help us understand about the Bible?

To take them in reverse order, the detail from Whistler’s painting provides a great example of how “snippets” from an artistic creation can be isolated and given a meaning contrary to the one the artist intended.  This effect is particularly pronounced when they’re also given a different name and when other material is added that reinforces the contrary meaning, like the potted flowers in the “Mothers of America” stamp.

This happens all the time with the Bible.  Episodes or even sentences are snipped out, isolated, and supplemented, and as a result, even if they still say something edifying, we miss what they really meant in their original context.  The “parable of the prodigal son,” for example, is a wonderful story of repentance and reconciliation, but if we don’t see it as only one part of the “parable of the unforgiving older brother,” we miss the overall point that Jesus wanted to make.  So there’s a strong case for the approach taken in The Books of the Bible:  removing chapters and verses and headings and presenting the books of the Bible as whole literary compositions.

However, the example of the Liberty Bell shows us that sometimes the settings and adaptations introduced by later users can enhance rather than obscure the original creative intentions behind what has become a cultural artifact.  This is true of the Bible in the sense that all of its individual works take on a deeper significance (but one that is still consistent with their original meaning) when they are gathered into a collection where they can be read in light of one another and in light of the grand story they all tell together.  The Books of the Bible is designed to encourage such a reading by grouping those books that can be read most meaningfully together and by situating each book within the grand story of Scripture.

Finally, the example of the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling shows that we do become accustomed to engaging artistic creations as they have become known, and that it can be a pleasant surprise (or even an unpleasant shock) to encounter them in something much closer to their original form.

Some people may always prefer what the Bible has become, and see it as a book inherently divided into chapters and verses.  But our hope is that through The Books of the Bible, many will be able to encounter the artistic creations (literary compositions) it contains in a form much closer to their original one, and so have a more enjoyable and meaningful encounter with God’s word than they otherwise would have had.

Interior page from The Books of the Bible

Will the signs at football games just read “John”?

Q. If The Books of The Bible has the desired impact, in the future will we see the guy at the football game holding up a sign that just reads, ‘John’?


I’m sure we’ve all seen the “John 3:16” signs on televised football games. There may even be some signs like this at the Super Bowl on Sunday.

This question provides a great illustration of how The Books of the Bible, the version these study guides are designed to be used with, encourages referencing not by chapter and verse, but by content and context.

The word count is pretty limited on those signs, but if you had the chance to speak with someone at slightly more length, think of how much more meaningful it would be to refer contextually to “what Jesus told Nicodemus when he came to see him early in the gospel of John,” rather than to use the chapter and verse shorthand.  Or, by content, you could refer to how the Bible tells that that “God loved the world so much that He gave his only Son,” summarizing the message rather than just giving its address.

Along these lines, instead of reading simply “JOHN,” a sign at a football game might say something like this:


Or, in bigger letters:


I bet that would get the attention of the television cameras.

Do we need to use The Books of the Bible with these guides?

Q. I have a Bible I like and am used to using. I’d prefer not to have to buy a new one to use these studies. And I am fairly certain the members of my small group might feel the same. How can I use your studies with a traditional Bible?

Your concern is perfectly understandable. We anticipated it, and that’s why we designed these guides so that they can be used with any kind of Bible. Each session is typically devoted to a natural section of a biblical book, and as the instructions at the beginning of the guides explain, “You’ll be able to identify these sections easily because they’ll be indicated by their opening lines or by some other means that makes them obvious.”  In fact, since the sessions go sequentially through biblical books, in each new session you can just pick up where you left off the last time.  So even with a traditional Bible, you’ll get much of the benefit of approaching the biblical books through their own natural structures rather than through the later artificial additions of chapters and verses. You don’t need to get a whole new Bible just to use these guides.The Books of the Bible

That much said, you will definitely have the best experience with these study guides, and in your small group discussions, if you do use The Books of the Bible.  Without chapters and verses, the Bible reads like the collection of books it really is.  I invite you to to give this way of reading Scriptures a try–I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised!  (You can find out more about The Books of the Bible by reading this Wikipedia article.  You can download and preview several biblical books from the edition here. To find out how to order a copy, see this post.)

I think you’ll quickly adjust to reading and discussing the Bible without using chapter and verse references. You’ll find that this is much closer to the way you’d discuss any other book, for example, in a book club.  You’ll discover that you can refer to places in the passage descriptively (“When Nicodemus first arrives . . .”) or by quoting short phrases (“When he says, ‘We know that you are a teacher who has come from God . . .'”). It doesn’t take long to catch on.

I wish you and your small group a great experience, whatever Bible you use with these guides. (But I definitely encourage you to check out The Books of the Bible!)